While a postdoc in Eric Lander's lab at the Whitehead Institute in the late '90s, Douglas Fambrough spent the little free time he had surfing the Internet, "reading about startups [and] looking through the portfolios of biotech VC firms, trying to figure which little companies I thought were going to be successes and why," he says.
At that time, "it was pretty clear that the next big thing in biotechnology was genomics," he adds. "Genome sequencing was ramping up, technology was coursing into research from the robotics and IT industries, [and] automation was replacing hand-labor and vastly increasing productivity." To top it off, "the Internet bubble was raging and spilling over into biotechnology, and genomics in particular," Fambrough says. The next big thing, indeed.
Venture capital, or VC, is financial capital given to early-stage, high-risk startup companies that show potential for growth. In the life sciences, venture capitalists peruse the biotechnology, pharmaceutical and academic research markets to determine which nascent technologies show the most promise and which budding firms merit financial support to fully develop those technologies.
When he wrapped up his postdoctoral research, Fambrough first found himself in a peculiar position — a scientist visiting various biotech VC firms "looking for someone to take me on" as a financial analyst, he says — before eventually falling into some luck. Though he had no formal business education, Fambrough had extensive exposure to, and experience with, genomics — which was exactly what Oxford Bioscience Partners' Alan Walton had been looking for in a prospective analyst, Fambrough says. (It also didn't hurt that Walton was one of the original backers of Exelixis, the firm Fambrough's PhD advisor — the University of California, Berkeley's Corey Goodman — co-founded earlier that decade.) But while he had happened to be "in the right place at the right time, with the right connections," making the transition from bench science to biotech VC was not so simple, Fambrough says.
For him, it was "straight into the deep end," Fambrough says. He likens venture capital to an apprentice business. His first two-and-a-half years at Oxford Bioscience were largely spent observing Walton, trying to understand "how he thought about the industry and worked with portfolio companies," Fambrough says. "We spent hours talking about the future of technology and how it was reshaping biotech and creating investment opportunities."
While his graduate- and postdoctoral-theses work did not lend him skills directly applicable to his career in venture capital, Fambrough says that the "strong scientific grounding and analytical thinking skills" that both afforded him have been especially useful.
Having worked at the bench himself put Fambrough at an advantage in his most recent position as CEO of Dicerna Pharmaceuticals — the RNAi therapeutics firm he co-founded in 2007 while with Oxford Bioscience. "Being a CEO is all about managing people," he says. "Every day I try to spend time talking to the scientists and other employees so I know what's going on in my company and can realistically think about how we move forward." Though he transitioned into the role of Dicerna CEO about a year ago, Fambrough remains a venture partner at Oxford Bioscience, serving on the boards of the biopharma firms Xencor and Solstice Neurosciences.
While investing in a biotech company and managing one are vastly different, Fambrough says there are "two significant points of overlap: corporate strategy and corporate financing." Having experience with both, he notes that each role has its nuances, particularly related to finances.
As a venture capitalist, "you get invited to a lot of great parties and lots of people want to be your friend," he jokes. "They don't really want to be your friend, they just want your money." As a CEO, Fambrough enjoys "spending time with the great people we have here." However, he certainly now understands the managerial experience of "worrying about where all the money … is going to come from."
Fambrough says working in venture capital is "fabulously interesting" and affords "an overview of the industry that few others can get." But it can be easy to feel "one step removed from the real action," he adds. Because of this, Fambrough says that "if you find your mind always returning to the science, you should probably stick with science because you'll drop the ball on other things." Personally, though, he says he has found that, in both venture capital and management, "the business problems you must solve to be successful are every bit as interesting and challenging as any scientific question."
For researchers who seek to break into the business side of science, Fambrough says "the first step is the hardest." Though business school is an option, it's not a requirement, he says. For those who wish to forgo it, Fambrough suggests making "a strong effort to get involved and help out on any management [or] business issues" at their organization in any way that they can. "One strategy is to become a scientific leader," he says, adding that, in doing so, the business responsibilities — and opportunities — they seek are sure to follow.
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